Christoph Sammer / Flickr
Austrian beer has always been about as interesting as punctuation.
As Marko Nicolic tells me, an Austrian's beer preference is toward "the cheap stuff. That's what we're taught."
But Nicolic and his two co-founders -- Christophe Bichler and Maximilan Karner -- are attempting to recondition Austrian tastebuds with Bierol, their craft brewing company in Tyrol, Austria, one of only a few dozen craft breweries in the nation.
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Most beer producers in the country are either large commercial outfits or small brewhouses -- the latter of which do not always distribute beyond their own taprooms. Bichler's father had been operating one of these small brewhouses in the early 2000s, producing the typically limited range of styles native to Austria (i.e. plenty of malty lagers and clean, austere pilsners). But when his first brewmaster died and the second killed business with bad recipes, the operation croaked.
Nine years later, after tasting an IPA in America, Bichler the son brought word back to Nicolic and Karner: beer could taste good. Soon, the three friends would journey up to Munich for a craft beer festival, fall in love with the power of hops, and talk about Bichler's father's defunct brewery.
"Let's give it a try," Nicolic recalls saying.
Austrians have always had a few advantages when it comes to making beer. Even though their country has been historically tied to and shaped by German brewing, they’ve never been restricted by Germany’s cherished Reinheitsgebot -- the 501-year-old law that once permitted only three ingredients in beer recipes and is still followed by Bavarian brewers. Additionally, Austrians have also always been free to brew without certification from an accredited brewing school.
Without laws to impede them or the need for certification, the three friends quickly brought life back to Bichler's brewhouse, filling the tanks with recipes rare in these parts. By 2014, Bierol -- a portmanteau of the German word bier and the surrounding province of Tyrol -- had officially opened.
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While the friends first brewed what they knew would sell, giving in to their compatriots' less daring taste buds, they also created the types of beers that inspired them to brew in the first place: the dry-hopped amber lager, Number One; the double pale ale, Mountain Pale Ale; the creamy porter, Going Hazelnuts; and PADAWAN, a fruity, bitter, Mosaic-hopped pale ale. (While the founders are fans of Star Wars, PADAWAN doesn't take its name from Lucas's world, where it means “apprentice.” When the novice brewers had brought their pale ale to a festival, it was without a name. The beer was a hit, and one drinker dubbed it a “pale ale doing alright without a name.” The choice acronym stuck.)
While Bierol is a hit at craft festivals, as well as in Germany and Italy, the larger mission is to convert more countrymen.
"We have a chance to develop the market," Nicolic says, "and do it the right way: slowly."
Fortunately, the fledgling company is unafraid of experimenting. When a friend presented its founders with bushels of elderflower from his backyard, Bierol brewed a sour. And when they scored a truckload of juniper berries, they brewed a beer and then partnered up with Camba Bavaria, a German craft brewery that had produced a tasty citrus beer. The collaboration yielded a blend of the juniper and citrus beers, creating a gin and tonic cuvée, which did well at events and the local bar in their quiet mountain region, (a bar that happens to have one of the world's largest selections of gin). Next, Bierol has plans to brew a mint IPA.
During my visit, Bierol had just bottled its first El Patron, an IPA that had once been dubbed El Presidente. But as the recipe changed and the beer got hoppier (and the presidential title diminished), the brewers wanted a bolder name for this high quality India pale ale. They went with something more saintly.
Bierol is one of a few Austrian brewers ushering in that next generation at home. (One can guess their age from their WiFi network name: Wu Tang Lan.) And as the Austrian craft beer market grows, Bierol will likely help to establish the benchmark for where Austrian beer should be.
And what of the last generation?
After the elder Bichler handed over the brewery to Bierol, he went up to his mountain hut atop the Wilder Kaiser range, which stands prominently in Tyrol. The hut hosts hikers thousands of meters up by offering accommodations and serving typical Austrian fare...paired with quite atypical beer. It's likely the only mountaintop hut in the country that offers craft beer as the prize for completing an arduous hike.